Art and Spirit: Visions of Wonder, currently showing at The College of Psychic
Studies, London is a rare opportunity to see a rich selection of mediumistic and visionary art by more than a hundred artists, in surroundings devoted to esoteric pursuits.
|Installation view of 'Inner and Outer Spaces', with works by Ionel Talpazan and Alex Grey|
Spiritualists and mediums produced some of the first abstract
art in the last half of the nineteenth century. The College of Psychic Studies has
some very fine examples in its collection, perhaps most notably work by British
artist and spiritualist, Georgina Houghton (1814-1884), which prefigured
modernist abstraction by three decades.
|Spirit drawing by Georgina Houghton|
She is joined in Art and Spirit:
Visions of Wonder by an excellent selection of artists for whom psychological
operations provide the primary creative impulse. Works from the College’s own
collection form the core of the exhibition, including other early mediumistic
images by the likes of Victorien Sardou and Alice Essington. These are further enriched by loans from institutional and private collections, such as a hauntingly mysterious drawing by Madame Favre.
|Alice Essington, Showing the Influence of Osiris, 1895|
|Madame Favre, Untitled, 1860 (lent by Henry Boxer Gallery)|
Flowing, serpentine line and an often densely packed and shallow picture space
are common features of much of the work, including a fine selection of work by a number of anonymous twentieth-century artists. There are two really beautiful and
impactful drawings by an artist known only as E. W. and on an adjacent wall are
similarly arresting abstractions by Zinnia Nishikawa and Jan Steene. In the
same room there is a really fine example of the work of Czech visionary, Anna
Zemankova, and in another space, sublime contemporary drawings by the French
|Top: Zinnia Nishikawa|
Bottom: Jan Steene
Another common thread in spirit inspired art is a tendency for human faces and sometimes
figures to emerge from a mass of abstract or vegetal form - a revelation of the animistic sensibility, perhaps. This is particularly
effective in automatic drawings by Madge Gill, Cecilie Marková and Ethel Annie
Weir, all of whom believed their images to be channelled through spirit guides.
Located at the heart of the museum district in London’s South Kensington, The College
of Psychic Studies describes itself as ‘a focus for personal enquiry and a
training centre for mediumship, healing and a myriad of other esoteric
subjects.’ It was founded in 1884 and boasts Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as a past
president. The College has transformed itself this week into a gallery and opened its
doors for ten days only for this exhibition. Curated by Vivienne Roberts and
Gill Matini, it presents a rich visual offering of art, documentation and artefacts
related to the College’s history and mission. The exhibition proper is spread
over five of the six floors of a neat, Victorian townhouse, divided into
thirteen loosely themed sections that correspond to discreet rooms in the building. However, art
of one type or other fills almost every available space, in corridors,
stairwells and next to the elevator (there are two really beautiful woven works
by Ariadne, for example, hung high on a corridor on the third floor) and there is no obvious intended viewing route. There is no catalogue as such, and with more than 500 objects included, I found
myself wondering where the curated show ended before deciding to take the holistic
approach, assuming that even if some of these items were permanent features on display at the College, everything here was interconnected and relevant.
to declare a bias at this point. My interest is primarily in the marvellous visionary and
mediumistic artworks included here. I found myself spending most of time in the
sections devoted to these types of work, ‘The Home Circle’, ‘The Guided Hand’, ‘The
Art and Spirit of Madge Gill’, and ‘Inner and Outer Spaces’, which, in addition
to Margot's drawings, contains five standout, signature UFO pictures by Ionel Talpazan.
Other rooms housed more figurative visionary works, ranging from the Art Deco
fantasies of Ethel Le Rossignol, created under the guidance of a spirit known
as J.P.F., to an interesting series of naïve paintings by Ljerka Cairn, and powerful visionary drawings by Donald Pass.
|Ethel Le Rossignol, from the series 'A Goodly Company', 1920-1933|
The spiritualist interest in manifesting
images of the departed is explored in two sections. ‘Spirit Photography’
presents a rich selection of examples of a genre originating in the early years
of photography, which purported to show otherwise invisible spirit presence caught in the chemical alchemy of exposing a glass plate or film, and taking advantage of
the ‘objective’ nature of photography as a recording device. After numerous
accusations of fraud, spirit photography declined around the 1930s and was
replaced by hand-drawn spirit portraiture, to which another section of the show is
devoted. This consists of images of faces of the departed, revealed through the
mediumistic hand. The remainder of the exhibition consists of portrait
paintings and photographs of worthy psychics, largely in the ‘Pioneering
Spirits’ section, and the paraphernalia of their vocation, distributed through
several of the rooms, most notably on the second floor, in the sections ‘The
Occultists’ and ‘The Darkened Room’. These give valuable context and certainly
set the scene for visitors, pointing to both the history and continued vitality
of the College. They are also a reminder of the psychological alibi that
underpins all of the other art on show.
The exhibition is open for a tantalisingly short period (courses resume at the College on 21 August), which means that visitors will have to prioritise it. And it is well worth seeing. A tremendous amount of commendable work has been put into its realisation by the curatorial team for what is the largest exhibition in the College's history.
Art and Spirit: Visions of Wonder is at The College of Psychic Studies,
16 Queensbury Place, London, SW7 2EB
11 -20 August, 2019, 11am - 6pm